Feeding the World

Image courtesy flickr user nicora.

The world population is rapidly growing and there doesn’t seem to be any end in sight. By the end of 2011, which the United Nations has designated the International Year of Chemistry, the population is estimated to exceed 7 billion people [And indeed, it may have already—Ed.]. By 2050 even modest projections place this same figure above 9 billion. Among other issues such unprecedented growth raises is one stark and glaring question: How can the world feed that many people?

The facts look grim. Most experts anticipate that due to environmental change, the next few decades will bring even harsher growing conditions than what we face today. Worse still, these conditions are to be coupled with a limited amount of arable land, almost all of which is already in use. It seems that to feed the world of tomorrow, we’re somehow going to have to make more and better use of the farmland we already have.

On November 15, CHF will host Feeding the World, a conference where these exact issues will be discussed. When looking at current and future issues of world hunger and the role of chemistry and biochemistry in addressing them, the historical context must also be made clear. Hunger is by no means a new issue. By the early 20th century, the prospect that humankind would soon outstrip its food supply also loomed overhead. With a population rapidly approaching 2 billion, there was simply not enough farmland to produce an adequate amount of food. Famine and massive human suffering, it seemed, were imminent. But in 1911, due in part to advancements made in the chemical manufacture of ammonia from atmospheric nitrogen by the chemists Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, the world saw the birth of an entirely new technology: inorganic fertilizer. This mass-producible innovation allowed a significantly higher production yield per unit of already existing farmland, and averted the disaster of global famine.

But as we know, the population didn’t level off there, and between the 1960s to the 1990s the world experienced almost the exact same crisis. This era saw the most dramatic increase in human population ever, from 3 billion to 5.5 billion. With global farmlands already stretched to their apparent limit, there seemed no way to accommodate this massive spike in human growth. But in the same period food production actually increased at a commensurate rate to population growth. How was this possible? Again, technological innovations fed the world through more efficient use of our arable land. This time genetically enhanced high-yield varieties of crops and the global production of pesticides and herbicides insured a new maximum output of food.

How will we solve our current food crisis? While nobody knows exactly, there is no doubt that technological innovation will lead the way. Our global ecosystem is already bent far beyond its natural carrying capacity. At this point in time, the problem of creating enough food is only solvable only through the advancement of food production technologies, including land and water use. Investment in science - in biochemistry and chemistry - is an absolute necessity for an ever-rising population. But our investment is one that also requires global discussion. As modern technology makes more and more possible, the impact on our collective future becomes bigger and bigger. Though the benefits are shared, the risks are shared as well. We must keep working to feed the world, but we must also balance our efforts with an assurance that our path is a sustainable one, and mitigates and minimizes detrimental environmental impacts.

William Herkewitz is an institutional advancement and marketing intern at CHF.

Fritz Haber [CHF General Reading]
Feeding a War [Chemical Heritage]

Posted In: History | Policy | Technology

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